Piers Paul Read's Week

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Feb. 18 2002 2:09 PM

Piers Paul Read's Week

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One of the constant preoccupations of the first 20 years of my adult life was whether to live in London or the country. I was raised in the country; my wife in the city. We both liked both but could not afford two houses. In 1980 we settled for the city and bought our present home in Notting Hill. Our children went to local schools. We put down roots in the city. Now a number of factors have reactivated the old dithering. There has been a sharp rise in street crime in London, evident not just in the statistics but in the mugging and bag-snatching in our neighbourhood and an Al-Capone shoot-out between rival gangs in a restaurant just down the road. I now feel uneasy when I leave my house. And then I seem to have reached, in terms of the metropolitan life, a point of diminishing returns. The journey to London's West End to go to the theatre or opera is a costly ordeal. Over the past five years or so, I have rarely remained beyond the interval of any one play—feeling, perhaps unfairly, that the actors are enjoying the performance more than I was, and yet it was I who was paying them. The opera is prohibitively expensive. Art galleries seem only to exhibit the work of charlatans.

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"The man who is tired of London is tired of life," said my wife, quoting Dr. Johnson. Not so, I say. Think of the great thinkers such as Voltaire who fled the debilitating distractions of the city and flourished in rural seclusion. "Humph," she says, and then adds, "I seem to have heard all this before." And she has, because 30 years ago, suffering from the same kind of urbophobia, we sold our house in Hammersmith and moved 200 miles north to live in Yorkshire. Our new house, originally a hunting lodge, stood on the south side of a small village with wide views over the Hambledon Hills. I converted one of the outbuildings into a study where I could write undisturbed. It was a paradise for our then young children, who could play freely on the village green and meet only friendly faces for five miles around. Only gradually did one or two snags emerge. The village was certainly secluded: We had to drive 12 miles to fetch a newspaper. It was silent at night, but the day was regularly disturbed by the roar of low-flying jets. In summer this was joined by the throbbing motors of the combine harvesters; and in the autumn and winter it was like the World War I battle of Passchendaele as the shooting season got under way.

Friends from London came to stay and said how much they envied us our lot. This hospitality meant hard work. Soon I began to feel that we were running a country-house hotel for customers who left without paying the bill. We came to dread our guests asking if they could stay on until Monday morning; and it became galling to listen to them as they made plans to meet up in London later in the week. "Oh friends, how boring it is," Chekhov wrote from his estate in the country. And it was. When not writing a book, I could think of nothing to do. I did not farm, hunt, shoot, or fish: The only part of gardening I liked was buying expensive machines which brought the unit price of each dirty lettuce or gnarled carrot to around £5. Evelyn Waugh, equally bored in Somerset, used to go off to the cinema in the little town of Taunton; our local town had no cinema. We had to make do with television. "If I am a physician," Chekhov went on, "I need patients and a hospital; if I am a man of letters, I have to live among people." As time went on, we began to grab at any pretext for going to go to London but, too ashamed to admit to our friends that we had made the expensive 500-mile round trip simply to turn up at a book launch or attend a cocktail party, I would take on time-wasting appointments to bodies such as the Arts Council or the Society of Authors.

In time, I came to envy Chekhov the tuberculosis that forced him to sell up and move to the south of France. Then it struck me that, with or without tuberculosis, I could do the same. It was unthinkable to return to London but, since the only project I then had on hand was a novel set in Nice, we could go and live there to absorb local colour and enable the children to learn French. In 1979 we let our house in Yorkshire and rented a bizarre villa in the middle of Nice. The children went to the local school. I wrote my novel, The Villa Golitsyn. It was no holiday for the hotelier: The friends who had come to Yorkshire were equally prepared to make the journey to the Côte d'Azur. Nor was the society any more diverting than in Yorkshire—or the Russian countryside in Chekhov's time. "I am already cruelly bored here," wrote Chekhov from Nice. I felt the same. But I did not have tuberculosis; I was not obliged to stay; and though I did not know it at the time, we were on our way back to London.